The NOSS (Naturally Occurring Support Systems) is an old time-tested concept with a new acronym. It’s also one viable answer for our industry’s middle and lower income concerns.

By Sue Ronnenkamp, MHA

The NOSS (Naturally Occurring Support Systems) is an old, time-tested concept with a new acronym. It’s also one viable answer for our industry’s middle and lower income concerns. In earlier articles I provided several examples of how the NOSS can add value in later life in economical and meaningful ways. Today I’ll lay out steps we can take to encourage it, both inside and outside senior living communities, so more can benefit.

Talk It Up  

Focusing on the value of interdependence may be the easiest way to promote the NOSS. Nothing beats it for good later life living. When we combine our efforts with the efforts of others, we achieve our greatest success. We also connect and engage and keep purpose alive – top keys for positive aging.    

Still, lots of people don’t know this. American Seniors Housing Association (ASHA) is helping with their “Where You Live Matters” public awareness campaign. But everyone in the industry needs to join in and expand this to “Your Connections Matter” too. Then keep repeating and stressing this message over and over again – to prospects, residents, families (elders in the making), staff, and the public.

Expect It

Let’s empower and encourage older people to do for themselves and others, wherever and whenever possible. It doesn’t matter if it’s perfect. Everyone can contribute in some way. Sure, this might require families and senior living community and aging services staff to get out of the way. But this will support full and purposeful living.      

Thinking back, one of the best things Dad did for Mom was expect her to contribute to their two-person NOSS. She dressed herself, she helped prepare meals, and she paid the bills for many years after her first stroke and subsequent TIAs. Dad didn’t care how long it took or if there were errors. He knew the importance of keeping purpose alive. He also wanted to prolong Mom’s abilities. All people can benefit from this opportunity and expectation too. Let’s make sure they get it.  

Kick Start It

The NOSS should occur naturally and not be forced, but this doesn’t mean it can’t be kick started. People connecting in any positive way can provide fertile soil to grow and nurture the NOSS. So offer like-minded people lots of ways to connect, e.g., senior members at the YMCA, older people in regular apartment complexes, pet owners in any setting. Joining together for a purpose works too – like “Lean In to Live Well” groups (see my Part II article), later life learning, or sharing interests of any kind.   

We can also jumpstart community connections. Here’s one simple way I did this in my last role. We took resident photos, added their name and apartment number, and displayed these on digital frames on each floor. This helped residents learn names and more easily connect with their neighbors. Many stopped by to thank me for this tool. Knowing a person’s name can spark magic, but it isn’t always easy to do.

Back It Up

Sometimes the NOSS can use some support of its own. The vision loss group in one community offered educational sessions, so residents could learn how to be of help to their sight-impaired neighbors and friends. Dementia education was requested for similar reasons at another community. Good reminders that many want to be supportive, but sometimes need education and training to do this.

One NOSS often in need of added support is the one within a marriage. When a spouse changes (e.g., diminished health, memory loss, vision or sight impairments), this can test the patience of even the most tolerant and understanding. This change often carries lots of emotional baggage too. “Well spouse” support groups can help and provide a place to share encouragement, advice, and ideas. One community also offered a weekly meal and program for the spouses with disabilities. This gave the “well spouse” a break each week and provided added engagement and socialization for their partners. All came out ahead.  

Design For It

Architectural choices count too. The old senior living “hotel” design (long corridors, people stuck away behind window-less, locked doors) won’t disappear overnight. But today we’re seeing new models where resident visibility is being opened up and expanded. This includes “pocket neighborhoods” and courtyards – where apartments and cottage homes face each other and people can easily engage and connect with their neighbors.  

One of my favorites is the “hybrid home” offered at Landis Homes in Lititz, PA (designed by Gregg J. Scott, AIA, RLPS Architects). Instead of stacking apartments along corridors, each of the six “home like” apartments on each floor opens to a central living room.  There are also added community spaces in each building, where residents share meals and interests on a regular basis.  Staff come in and provide support where needed, but none are based “on site.”  This encourages residents to do for themselves and each other, providing a strong breeding ground for the NOSS. I can easily envision this model being duplicated with smaller apartment homes, to accommodate affordability and higher support needs

“Tech Support” It

Jon Katz did this by sharing residents’ pictures and stories with his Bedlam Farm blog followers (see Part II article). Many neighborhoods and apartment complexes do this with a simple Listserv, allowing people to connect in supportive ways – even when they don’t live next door to each other.  More senior communities can jump in and ramp up technology to connect residents, e.g., online resident directories and profiles, resource banks of skills, talents, and offers of help. It doesn’t have to be fancy, only effective.

Make It a Viable Solution

The NOSS can add value and expand the affordability of enhanced living in later life. It’s not the only way to do this, but it’s already making a huge difference for many. Let’s embrace it, encourage it, and foster it – now and for our future.